Letter to My Son, the Energy Engineer

Dear Bear,

It’s Easter Sunday and I have the windows open to let in the sunshine, warm breezes, and the sound of a squirrel squalling in the Chinese Elm in the front yard. The ceiling fan – powered by electricity that your employer distributes to my house – is humming softly.

This is a watershed day.

Last night you responded to a video I posted on Facebook – Dr. Helen Caldicott’s assessment of the scope of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the light of 25-year data from Chernobyl. To put it mildly, a frightening video….and I’m not sure you actually saw the whole thing. I know I found it hard to watch.

This was your response:

I believe that nuclear power needs to be EXTREMELY tightly regulated, but mom, you have to realize that most of europe, and many other areas are primarily powered by nuclear energy. As an environmentalist I would think that you would understand – the only alternative forms of energy generation that are even remotely environmentally friendly are solar, water, and wind – all of which have problems with consistency. If we were completely powered by these methods there would be periods of time where we had no power whatsoever. Clearly governments are understating the dangers of nuclear waste to the public, but to say that nuclear power should be discarded because it has risks is just as questionable…

I’ve been sitting for hours with this, trying to work out a response that comes from my heart and presents data that you’ll understand as a engineer.  With the  black/white, either/or, us/them perspective that’s becoming the rule in this society,  Earth-based environmentalists often paint Big Energy as the greedy, rapacious, planet-destroying enemy….just as Big Energy paints environmental advocates as eco-terrorists, potential if not actual.

Bear-bear, I know you’re not going to work every day with plans to destroy the planet. Your job is keeping the lights on, so to speak…literally, at times, in the BG&E storm center! You and I have been through enough tough discussions that I know you’re reaching out to come to a shared, complex, understanding of a complex issue…and that means a lot to me.

If you’ve read my posts and poems on this blog at all, you know I’m painfully aware that we’re all the problem…it’s not a matter for simple finger-pointing. Sure, I’ve chosen 100% wind energy through WGES…and the house is still heated by oil, so my hands are not clean.

On your side, I know that, given the sources of the energy your company provides – in 2009, at least, 33.6% was nuclear (according to the BG&E website) – they’re likely to minimize the risks of nuclear power and not encourage employees to inform themselves further. In terms of job and income security, it’s perhaps safer for you not to question the company line too closely or to look at too much of the opposing data.

But I also know the fierce integrity of my son, who looks at all sides of an issue and makes up his own mind based on the information he has…so here’s some of the data that’s being supplied about nuclear energy post-Fukushima, not by anti-nuclear advocates or environmentalists, but by people in the field, and by international investment advisors.

UBS AG international wealth management analysts concluded in a report released earlier this month – “We believe the Fukushima accident was the most serious ever for the credibility of nuclear power.” In a nation as technologically advanced as Japan, one would think that steps would have been taken to avert such a disaster – and the plant did indeed withstand the quake, as Dr. Caldicott said in the video. What caused the disaster was not the quake, but the tsunami.

As Fukushima is many orders of magnitude greater than Chernobyl, the health impact globally is near-incalculable – the figures on Chernobyl-related cancers alone are just coming out, not to mention assessments of the post-disaster environmental impact after a quarter century.

Horrific as it is, Bear, the ongoing meltdown at Fukushima (and the years projected until full control of the situation is achieved – years in which radiation will continue to be released into the air and water of the planet) is the real-life unfolding of just one of the nuclear disasters that are quite reasonably possible.

For one thing, nuclear power plants around the world are aging. According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Energy Information Association – “higher capacity utilization rates have been reported for many existing nuclear facilities, and it is anticipated that most of the older nuclear power plants in the OECD countries and non-OECD Eurasia will be granted extensions to their operating lives.”

Even if you leave deterioration due to age out of the equation, however, the quake at Fukushima was not an isolated risk. In the U.S. alone,  according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “each year, at the typical nuclear reactor in the U.S., there’s a 1 in 74,176 chance of an earthquake strong enough to cause damage to the reactor’s core, which could expose the public to radiation. No tsunami required. That’s 10 times more likely than you winning $10,000 by buying a single ticket in the Powerball multistate lottery, where the chance is 1 in 723,145.’  Multiply the damage from one nuclear disaster by the number of reactors at risk and…well, you can do the math.

The truth is, Bear – as Dr. Caldicott pointed out – that the risks associated with nuclear power stand fair to leave this planet uninhabitable, not only for future generations, but for our own. That’s not an acceptable risk for any gamble.

While nuclear power is certainly a primary source of power in Europe (I would question whether it’s the primary source, based on the data I’ve found), the Fukushima disaster is prompting a worldwide step back. Just in the past few weeks, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, for example, have moved to ban nuclear energy.

Other energy sources are gaining attention as a result: according to the UBS AG report, “Natural gas producers OAO Gazprom and Woodside Petroleum Ltd. are among companies set to benefit as countries shift away from nuclear power.” So I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that in Maryland, BG&E may be gearing up in that direction also…or that we will be seeing both an increase in fracking for natural gas, and fracking disasters such as the recent one in Pennsylvania.

As you say, Bear, “the only alternative forms of energy generation that are even remotely environmentally friendly are solar, water, and wind, all of which have problems with consistency.”

You’re right in saying that if we went 100% to clean energy sources today, there would be periods without any energy.  The technology, not to mention the infrastructure,  to support a 100% switch doesn’t exist. The problem, however, is that instead of ramping-up research and development of such technology (as we were briefly), this country’s government appears to be pushing for new ways to expand extraction of fossil fuels and production of nuclear energy.   Earlier this month Republican-led bills passed to continue and expand offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans. Not too long ago the headlines in the news were on tar sands extraction in Utah; just a few weeks ago I was seeing stories on uranium mining in the Grand Canyon.

As global energy consumption demand – and the demand for an American-style standard of living – continues to grow, regulation and oversight of fossil fuel producers is likely to dwindle (truth be told, it already is dwindling, witness Deepwater Horizon) with environmental impact increasing exponentially. And the U. S. is  leading the world in a race of regression.

Bear, you and I both know that the picture isn’t good. Sure, swapping lightbulbs, turning off lights, cutting consumption, etc. etc., helps, but in the end, deeper solutions are necessary, both for consumers and providers. Our choices today, on both sides of the fence, have unimaginable consequences, today and in the long term.

Yes, your company does have renewable energy initiatives. I am hoping that my boy, the engineer, has an opportunity to move into one of these…

…and no matter what, I’m proud of you, I love you, and I hope we keep talking…..